Obama And The Global Nuclear Disarmament: Will There Be A Revival? – Analysis


By Shubhra Chaturvedi

The American Presidential debate is a projection of the different policies that the United States as a state would follow when different candidates come to power. The 2012 debates, in this regard, were definitely a clear indication of the issues that were considered crucial. However, it is surprising that nuclear disarmament did not appear on the list of important issues discussed in the third presidential debate, which focuses on foreign policy.

President Obama
President Obama

The fear of nuclear proliferation was visible in the intense discussion about the nuclear programme of Iran in the third Presidential debate. References to Iran and North Korea were made but nothing substantial was discussed regarding any plans on proceeding with the agenda of nuclear disarmament. What could be the reasons behind the omission of this from the debate? Has the US changed its strategy on global nuclear disarmament?

Barack Obama: Ray of Hope or Epitome of Rhetoric?

In 2009, Obama was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Norwegian Nobel Committee had then stated that “The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” It was also said that Obama had built up a vision of a world where “dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts”. Claims were made that Obama’s vision of a world free from nuclear arms had stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations in a very constructive way.

The current scenario is not very different from what it was in 2009; and is actually worse in terms of the potential nuclear threats that the world is facing. Tensions between Israel and Iran, the volatile West Asian region, the race towards Ballistic Missile Defense in South Asia, the North Korean threat and fears over Iran’s nuclear programme are all ample reasons for Obama to work towards nuclear disarmament. Why then, was there no mention of nuclear threats as a global challenge apart from the specific references made to regional issues?

GND: Why the silence?

While speculations can be made regarding the absence of the issue of Global Nuclear Disarmament, one reason could be the fear of criticism or political convenience in skipping the issue. Another reason could be the search for a different policy towards the issue of nuclear disarmament, per se. Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama publicly declared their support for Israel in case of an Iranian attack. The support declared included not just diplomatic and cultural, but military support as well. While none of the nuclear weapon states are expected to use the nuclear option, is the US silence about the efforts towards disarmament a subtle indication of a prospective use? The United States is a classic example of staying away from the “last resort”, which is military response rhetorically and then acting as if the only resort left was the last resort. The debate did not look at any substantial solutions except the clear anti-Iranian nuclear programme agenda. It is important to analyse the extent to which the anti-Iranian nuclear programme agenda can be stretched.

There is another possibility that the United States might want some nuclear powers on its side to balance the “axis of evil”. Global nuclear disarmament might be the desired goal, but it is far from being achieved at the moment. At the Global Zero London Summit in 2011, Barack Obama declared that “Global Zero will always have a partner in me and my administration”. Those words did not find much support later and definitely no support in the third Presidential debate. Is it possible that with the emergence of outliers like Iran and North Korea, the United States has lost faith in the “phased”, “verified” elimination of nuclear threat including proliferation and nuclear terrorism, which was the Global Zero Movement?

Is the US giving up on GND?

The absence of any mention of the Global Nuclear Disarmament in the Presidential debate leads one to think whether the United States has finally given up the cause. The current crippling sanctions being imposed on Iran are an example of how much the states of the world can pressurise a potential nuclear proliferator to discourage it. Obama did discuss his policies towards Iranian sanctions, but skipped the discussion on nuclear disarmament as a movement. While it was the belief of the majority in the utopian nature of global nuclear disarmament, the silence of Barack Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize receiver and supporter of the same, is striking. Is this an end of the long phase of uniform efforts towards Nuclear Disarmament or is it the beginning of a new policy towards nuclear proliferators?

Shubhra Chaturvedi
Research Officer, NSP, IPCS
e-mail: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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